Up, up and AWAY!

The human brain is a weird thing, huh?
I mean, first of all it looks flippin’ weird – kind of like the longest worm in the world that’s been playing Twister and got itself into a hell of a mess, littered with a million curious crevices (OK, I’ve not counted, but it’s loads anyway) and with the consistency of jelly into which some dufus tipped a ton of gelatine.
I know all of this highly technical stuff, because I totally studied the brain at, like, Cambridge University and everything, OK?
Its structure is so complicated that one look at it is enough for most people to realise that, if anything goes wrong, you’re really going to need to call in a man in a yellow jacket, ‘coz DIY brain repair just ain’t going to work.

Most of the time the brain lets you bumble along, walking and talking and crapping and stuff, and you hardly notice it’s there at all. Sometimes, however, you are reminded of its presence such as the occasions when you soak it in hard alcohol and it suddenly stops being able to recognise vertical, and thinks everyone is your best mate.

And sometimes, for no apparent reason, the brain can make an announcement over your PA system, much like this: “Hey. How you doing? Nice T-shirt. Listen, so you know that thing that you used to do with no problem at all, and never had an issue with, and actually enjoyed doing? Well, there’s going to be a sight change, because I’m in a curiously sadistic mood: as of today you’re going to be so scared of this thing, that the mere thought of it – which I control….hahahahaha! – will cause your palms to sweat, your heart to race, and a feeling of absolute and certain imminent death to course through your entire body. Is that cool?”

This is pretty much what my brain said to me, about 5 years ago, on the subject of air travel. There I’d been for 30 years, flying about from here to there, and sometimes even right over THERE, and then back again, eating little meals out of cute plastic compartments, playing with the buttons in my arm rest and not thinking of absolute and certain imminent death. Not even once.

And then – KAPOW!! My brain decided to have a little fun and make me terrified of flying. So terrified that I’ve not set foot on an aircraft for almost 3 years, would rather drive for 3 days than get on a 2-hour flight, and, even though I really really want to, I can’t show my children the world.
Cheers, mate. Nice one.
Now then, I need to make one thing clear right here: if you’ve never been scared of flying, and you think it’s just some Silly Little Thing that one really ought to snap out of while pulling one’s socks up jolly high, then you can totally fuck off right now, OK, because we’re not going to get along. Thank you.
But if you’re prepared to be believe that this fear can become so intense that it controls your LIFE, that it means taking every single holiday within a 10-hour drive from home, means you have to miss out on career opportunities, and that it causes such distress and rage and despair that at times you’re not even sure if you want to carry on living if this is how it’s going to be from now on, then you can be my friend, and listen as I tell you what happened to me yesterday that I think (hope…) might put an end to this nonsense.

Basically, I went of a Flying Without Fear course, run by the kind and jolly folk at Virgin.
At first this might sound like a bad plan: fill a room with 200 people (yes, two HUNDRED people, of all ages, and both sexes, and varying degrees of flying experience and fear) all shaking and sweating at the mention of a tray table or a departure lounge, and then listen as they all share their terrified stories. Perhaps not the best way to get over a fear…

But no, my friend, no. The result was unbelievable, and overwhelmingly positive.  Through numerous, detailed talks by cabin crew, a Neuro Linguistic Programming instructor and a pilot so handsome he was surely hired from Rent-A-Handsome-Pilot.com (if this doesn’t exist then please would someone set it up?) the assembled nervous audience learned about the basic physics behind lift and drag, about aircraft design, first aid training, what happens when (sorry – IF) an engine cuts out (answer: pretty much nothing), how much testing an aircraft goes through (answer: shit loads) and all the tricks our brain plays on us while we’re up there (eg when the plane levels out a bit at 5000 feet or so we all think we’re plummeting to our certain imminent death…Right?)
We could ask as many questions as we liked (what if the windows are sucked out? Why do the wings flap? Can you really have sex in the toilets without breaking a rib? Ok, not that one…) and there was a huge amount of laughter as well as serious discussion.
Oh, and more food and coffee than I’ve had in a month.

We then learned a few tricks we can play back on our brains. Some of it sounds, to a sceptical sciencey type like me anyway, like a large pile of twaddle. But this wasn’t a day for scepticism. It was a day for opening the mind and doing everything and anything to overcome a fear that had gripped us all like viper round a tasty bit of shrew.
We were all men in yellow jackets fixing the bits that had got wired a bit wrong…and the DIY really worked.

And so we learned about spinning, and catastrophising (not a great thing to be doing, take it from me), auto thoughts and tapping. We did some relaxation exercises, and learned how to switch off bad thoughts (you know, like “fuck, we’re all going to DIE!!!”)  and think of better ones (like “hey, this is fun, and in 2 hours I’m going to be on the beach!). And amazingly – really amazingly – it seemed to WORK.

Finally, armed with our crash course (sorry) in A-Level in aviation and our new powers of mental control, we boarded a flight – from Gatwick, to Gatwick.
Yes, there was crying. Yes, I really thought I was going to have to get off, and be the only loser who couldn’t overcome her claustrophobia and sit in that bloody plane for 30 minutes. Yes, I was terrified.

I had a bad moment about 5 minutes after take off when I suddenly realised I still found this really bloody hard, and I wanted to get off, thanks all the same. But I couldn’t. This made me cry, because all, all, ALL I wanted was to be able to fly….WITHOUT FEAR. To be like other, ‘normal’ people. To take my kids to New York and Thailand, and pop to Prague for the weekend with my husband like we used to. I wanted to be RID of this fear!!

And then I remembered what I’d been told on the course: that we LEARN fear. We’re not born with it: we learn this behaviour…and we can un-learn it. It’s a process, not a magic wand. And also, most so-called ‘normal’ people don’t actually LIKE flying either – they do it as a means to get from A to B. But they control their fear, and don’t let it get the better of them. All I had to do was keep breathing, and control mine using the techniques I’d been taught. And I did.

We were in the sky. The pilot told us every step of the way what each noise was, what was happening and why. We were flying around over the most beautiful view of London, the Isle of Wight, Brighton and hey! even Butlins in Bognor Regis. That’s got to be worth the ride. People started to chat, and relax, and look out of the window and stop squeezing the arm rest into dust. People started to actually ENJOY being on the plane.

The feeling of euphoria afterwards was extraordinary. Nervous, frowny, tense people I’d spent all day with suddenly looked years younger. They were happy, relaxed, relieved and very emotional about their huge achievement. It was one of those weird, bonding moment where complete strangers hugged each other and cried together and harps played and everything went a bit pink.

One of the best things about the day was meeting people who were able to be so honest about their fears, and who supported each other throughout what was a life-changing experience for most.
I took the train back to London with two people I’d shared my fear –and my conquest of that fear – with. Mark, an astonishing young Latvian chap who, at seventeen, was the youngest on the course, and is going to Cambridge next year to study Natural Sciences before become a very famous and successful screenwriter (though he doesn’t know this yet), and Joanna, a lovely Polish journalist who had travelled all the way from Berlin to London by bus….and was going home by PLANE!!

I came home a new person. The world that had gradually become so small and crushing to me now seems open and available, and ready for me to explore it. I’m not over the fear completely, I know that. And I know the next step is to get on a real flight and go somewhere as soon as possible.
I’ve been asked to fly to Munich on Wednesday for a meeting…and am I going to go? Well yes, I think I am. If you’d asked me two days ago if I ever thought I’d say that, I’d had wet myself laughing. And then cried tears of rage at my inability to overcome my controlling fear.

Well, (she says half confidently….) not any more.

If you have a fear of flying, please, please book yourself onto this course. I’ve not been paid to say this (although I’d be very happy to accept my prize for asking JJ a question that had never been asked…..OK Richard? You did offer one       ; -)     ) I just think it might change your life for the better, and that’s got to be worth a try. www.flyingwithoutfear.info (not .com) is where it’s at. Go. Don’t even think about it! Go!



One thought on “Up, up and AWAY!

  1. Josephine Tale Peddler

    Dear Liz, I was so fearless when I was younger on planes. I even flew Air India and didn’t think twice. These days I dread flying as well and although I don’t have panic attacks, it’s quite an ordeal for me. I try to avoid planes and cars as much as possible. I also have a huge fear of large spiders but that’s another story. Did September 11 make you worse? I know that it really upped the anxiety for me when I spent so much time watching planes going into the twin towers. I think it’s amazing you had the balls to do that course. I did jump out of a small plane at 10 000 feet once to try to overcome my fear but nearly died of terror. Can’t advise that as a therapy. The zoo in Sydney offers courses as well for people to play with bird-eating spiders to overcome their fear and my husband wants me to try that one. I’m not as brave as you, however. xx


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